After years of letting federally funded housing vouchers for people leaving foster care and facing homelessness go to waste, D.C. is implementing a new law to ensure every young person who needs a voucher gets one.
The federal government funds thousands of Family Unification Program (FUP) vouchers nationally. The housing vouchers are available both for young people aging out of foster care at 21 and for parents who want to reunite with their children in foster care but need stable housing to do so.
A series of articles published by Street Sense Media and The DC Line in April revealed that the city has long used only about 80% of its FUP vouchers. According to over a dozen people interviewed for the series, young people about to leave foster care consistently needed the support but D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) did not connect them to vouchers. Meanwhile, CFSA reports show that between five and 20 young people move into unstable situations or experience homelessness when they age out of foster care each year.
Young people exiting foster care are at a high risk of homelessness — between 25% and 50% of them experience homelessness within four years, according to national studies. Across the U.S., people leaving care are less likely to have resources or support networks to lean on than peers who didn’t spend time in care. In an annual census, 13% of people experiencing homelessness in D.C. reported having spent time in the child welfare system.
One solution young people and advocates identified in the initial series was the Preserving Our Kids’ Equity Through Trusts (POKETT) Amendment Act of 2022. The bill — which reformed multiple aspects of the child welfare system — included a mandate that CFSA consider each young person leaving foster care for a voucher, and make a housing plan for every youth.
CFSA is slated to fully implement the POKETT Act in the coming year. The agency reports it has already begun distributing more vouchers, and has approved 17 vouchers since April for foster youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness. As required by the law, CFSA is also taking steps to help young people in foster care claim and save any benefits they may be eligible for, a sum experts say can be monumental in helping young people afford stable housing when they leave care.
With the reforms, CFSA expects to connect enough young people and families to the FUP vouchers by Dec. 31 that D.C. will be able to apply for more vouchers from the federal government.
“I’m glad to see that [the agency] has already taken key steps and others are in process, that will give eligible young people more promising futures,” Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who introduced the POKETT Act, wrote in a statement to Street Sense and The DC Line. “All children should be able to exit foster care with an expectation and the tools and funds they need to survive and thrive on their own.”
The unused vouchers
When Jay aged out of foster care four years ago, CFSA had 90 FUP vouchers available. But instead of recommending they apply for the program, or even telling them about it, they said CFSA employees directed them to the agency’s Rapid Rehousing program. While that program likewise provides a subsidy, the duration is much shorter and participants must have a job to pay their portion of the rent.
At first, this was fine, Jay said. But then, like many Americans, they lost their job during the pandemic, and they couldn’t cover their end of the rent. By the time Jay moved out, they were around $10,000 in debt.
“I didn’t know about the vouchers. I didn’t know there was [any] other resource that could help,” said Jay, who is using a pseudonym because they are still involved with CFSA.
Jay’s story is similar to those of many people interviewed for the series. Over the last five years, D.C. has had between 75 and 92 vouchers available at the end of each year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Young people interviewed for this series said CFSA staff rarely told them about the vouchers or helped them apply, and instead steered them to move back in with the families from which D.C. had once removed them.
The first time Jay asked CFSA about a FUP voucher, they said, the agency told them they didn’t exist. Later, they were told the vouchers were only available to people who were leaving foster care with a child of their own, not for single adults. Sharra Greer, policy director at the Children’s Law Center, shared similar frustrations earlier this year about the difficulty of obtaining accurate information: CFSA had denied the majority of people her organization helped apply for FUP vouchers, and she didn’t know why.
At an oversight hearing this spring, CFSA Director Robert Matthews said the agency was not withholding vouchers inappropriately. Rather, he argued, many young people about to age out are not ready to live independently, and are better off going to live with family.
“I do not believe every older youth should have a voucher,” Matthews said at the hearing, adding that in some instances continuing to provide assistance for youth as they age out prevents them from learning to live on their own.
Jay says they’ve heard the same sentiment from CFSA employees. But Jay argues that the reverse is true — that CFSA needs to help young people get vouchers, so they have time to become self-sufficient.
“There’s no financial literacy. There’s no, ‘This is how you take care of a home,” Jay said of the exit from the foster care system. “We’re not getting that.”
CFSA required to implement solutions
Many reforms that advocates like Greer have sought in CFSA’s implementation of the FUP voucher program became law last year with the enactment of the POKETT Act.
The agency’s FUP voucher staffers now attend Youth Transition Plan (YTP) meetings, which the agency holds with youth when they turn 20. The meetings are a mechanism for CFSA to present aging-out plans, but youth said previously that staff rarely discussed FUP vouchers. Starting Oct. 1, CFSA staff will also develop a housing plan for each young person at YTP meetings.
The agency has also executed a formal agreement with D.C.’s homeless services system to share data, so CFSA can identify youth who have already aged out and are now experiencing homelessness. So far, the homeless services system has made two referrals to CFSA, one of whom has been recommended for a FUP voucher, according to an agency spokesperson. The Community Partnership, which operates the homeless services system, will continue sending referrals each month.
Since April, seven families and youth have moved into housing via FUP vouchers. Another 23 are in the process of applying for a voucher or looking for housing. CFSA hopes to refer at least nine more youth and families to the vouchers by Dec. 31, which will allow the city to apply for a second type of federal voucher, the Fostering Youth to Independence (FYI) program. Unlike FUP vouchers, these are available only for youth.
According to slides from a CFSA briefing in July on housing for older youth, the agency has already applied for 75 more FUP vouchers. Once the agency requests the FYI vouchers, it will begin reserving all FUP vouchers for families.
“We continue to hear that far too many youth do not know about or benefit from this critical resource,” Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, whose committee has oversight over CFSA, wrote in a statement to Street Sense and The DC Line. “Given how hard it is for young people to find affordable housing in D.C., my expectation is that we will utilize every voucher we have at our disposal.”
Jay first heard about the FUP vouchers from a friend and, after months of confusing communication with CFSA, moved into their new apartment earlier this year. But they said they’re certain that things would be different if they’d received a voucher when they first left foster care in 2019 — they wouldn’t be thousands of dollars in debt, and they’d actually have savings.
Ruth White, the executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, spent months assisting Jay with getting a voucher. “What a crazy, wild and unnecessary ride this has been,” she said.
It’s not just about vouchers
CFSA has also begun implementing another provision of the POKETT Act, which prevents CFSA from seizing benefits from young people in foster care. As is common among child welfare agencies, CFSA previously screened each child when they entered care to determine eligibility for disability, survivor and veterans benefits. The agency then claimed those benefits on behalf of the youth, and used it to pay for their care.
That’s against the spirit of the federal law, according to Amy Harfeld, national policy director at the Children’s Advocacy Institute. Even though CFSA can help young people in foster care claim their benefits, the Social Security Administration prefers the benefits be held by family or trusted adults.
The benefits should then be saved, Harfeld said, or used for the unmet needs of children, such as special medical treatments, educational opportunities or resources like a car — not used to pay for their time in foster care. Harfeld has worked with young people in D.C. who never even knew they were eligible for benefits.
Under the POKETT Act, CFSA has begun informing youth who are eligible for benefits. Starting on Oct. 1, the agency will contract with an outside agency to establish savings accounts for the benefits.
“That is literally the difference between aging out into homelessness or getting a security deposit in on a decent apartment,” Harfeld said.
A work in progress
While CFSA is taking steps to refer more people to vouchers, recipients still have to find somewhere to live — a challenge familiar to people matched with other kinds of housing vouchers. CFSA has regularly made FUP referrals to people who never are able to lease up, the spokesperson wrote. Another complication is that, at best, the vouchers take six months to lease up, according to a July presentation from CFSA.
“Housing costs and the competitive renter market in D.C. are very challenging for low-income youth and families — these challenges represent the number one reason why FUP vouchers go unused,” reads a slide from the presentation.
Jay remembers struggling to find an apartment, too — especially with the debt from their time in Rapid Rehousing. While landlords cannot turn people away because they are using vouchers, it’s harder to rent without a good credit score or long rental history. If a young person is unable to find somewhere to live within 120 days, their FUP voucher expires.
Partially because of this challenge, CFSA actually distributes fewer vouchers than authorized by HUD, the spokesperson said. Units that former foster care youth rent are on average $1,886 per month, meaning the allocation can’t go as far as projected, according to CFSA. Because housing costs are higher in D.C. than in other jurisdictions, “48 vouchers in D.C. might not equate to 48 households served,” the spokesperson wrote.
Jay, who now informally helps other youth apply for the vouchers, said there’s still a lot of confusion over who receives them and who doesn’t. If youth aging out have a bad relationship with their case manager or don’t know to ask for the voucher, Jay said, it’s still hard to get one. But Jay remains hopeful other people might get the chance they never had.
“I would have hoped it would have helped be like a true transition,” Jay said of the recent reforms. “There is no way that someone should be aging out of foster care and being taken care of by the government and [then] switched over [to] the homeless services. Like that’s just unacceptable.”
This article was co-published with The DC Line.